Out of Africa and into the Living Room

Mark Heithoff

Richard Wilson is a tribal art importer with a conscience.

Denver’s “SoBo” neighborhood, on South Broadway, is a hodgepodge of low-lying buildings: sleepy antiques stores, coffee shops, and bookstores trapped in a fifties time warp. With the snowcapped Rockies in the distance, it’s not exactly the sort of place you’d expect to find a vast collection of African art. But in the sprawling basement of the Denver Design Center, Richard Wilson, a 47-year-old former member of the Rhodesian Special Forces, houses an eclectic array of silver-and-camel-bone Moroccan trunks, witch-doctor masks from equatorial Africa, tiny carved “Pygmy stools” made by Cameroon’s Baka tribe, hand-carved faux elephant tusks, and thousands of other pieces that he acquires each year when crisscrossing the continent.

Wilson’s love affair with Africa began at the age of 11, when his father moved the family to South Africa from Aberdeen, Scotland. Disgusted by apartheid, his father, a marine engineer and a strong advocate of unions and workers’ rights, relocated to Rhodesia in 1971. “But once we heard rumors of an impending war,” Wilson says, “we went back to South Africa. Just after we left, there was a mortar attack on my school.”

After running a small clothing company in South Africa where he sold, among other things, bulletproof vests imported from Israel, Wilson started collecting African crafts that his sister sold in the UK. Today he imports almost a million dollars’ worth of African goods, which he sells through Egg & Dart at the Denver Design Center and the Apropos gallery at the New York Design Center.

“Because I am a modernist, I’m drawn to the primitive nature of African art,” says Aspen architect and collector Scott Lindenau, who has more than a hundred pieces. “I got about a third of them from Richard.”

While Wilson imports everything from cedar-and-silver-inlaid Moroccan tables (from $5,000) to elaborately carved doors and chairs (from $4,000) crafted by the Berbers in the High Atlas Mountains to camel bags (from $1,000) made by the nomadic Tuareg tribe, which inhabits a large area of the Sahara, it’s the tribal masks that draw the most attention. Ranging from $4,000 to $15,000, these pieces are an integral part of the village culture, Wilson says. “If you need rain, then the witch doctor will put on the appropriate mask, come out, and do a rain dance, or if your crops need protecting, or if there is a famine—every mask has a purpose,” he explains. Masks from Cameroon are adorned with symbols such as crocodiles (power), elephants (wealth), and spiders (knowledge).

Wilson frequently works with local artisans to add modern tweaks: Traditional masks get wide-open eyes and slits so they can be backlit and hung on a wall; the ornately carved doorways used in the Bwiti ceremony of the Babongo and Mitsogo peoples of Gabon become decorative mirrors. (During the Bwiti ritual participants pass under one of these doorways after ingesting scrapings from the hallucinogenic iboga plant, believed to facilitate communication with the dead.)

A fierce environmentalist, Wilson does not import hides or horns. Instead, he has locals create faux animal horns—later used as coffee table legs—as well as “hides” used for objects like stools and lampshades. He also tries to make sure that as much money as possible ends up in the pockets of tribe members. “I was brought up to believe in the underdog,” Wilson says. “The whole focus of my business is to ensure that the people who deserve it get rewarded.” For example, Wilson might pay $800 for a hand-carved Moroccan door, and of that, about $200 to $300 would go to the local artist, with a fair portion of the remainder going to a “community organizer,” who acts as a middleman for the village artists.

Even though Wilson is well schooled in the nuances of African culture, he still has to rely on locals to procure some of his pieces; certain areas are just too dangerous. So his business partner, Yacouba Pekassa, who lives in Cameroon, frequently travels to Congo and neighboring countries.

Wilson is also aided in his African expeditions by his wife, Cherri Briggs, owner of the travel company Explore, Inc. She has been taking clients through the most remote, as well as the most luxurious, corners of Africa for the past 15 years. Briggs led the first team to descend—via kayak, no less—Mozambique’s Lugenda River. She was training for that journey when she met Wilson, at the Zambezi Waterfront Lodge in Livingstone, Zambia. He proposed on top of South Africa’s Table Mountain six months later. Today they split their time between a two-bedroom log cabin in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and a 15-acre former hunting camp in Zambia, where crocodiles lurk in the river and elephants and lions occasionally rest on the front lawn.

Pieces from Richard Wilson’s Zambezi Trading Company collection are available at Apropos, in New York (212-684-6987), and Egg & Dart, in Denver (303-744-1676).